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Factors Affecting Labor Markets, Discrimination

occupational segregation, labor resources, different gender, valuable ways, Civil Rights Act

Women and many minorities have long faced discrimination in U.S. labor markets. Employed women earn less, on average, than men with similar levels of education. In part this wage disparity reflects different educational choices that women and men have made. In the past, women have been less likely to study engineering, sciences, and other technical fields that generally pay more. In part, the wage differences result from women leaving the job market for a period of years to raise children. Another reason for the disparity in wages between men and women is that there is still a considerable degree of occupational segregation between males and females—for example, nurses are much more likely to be females and dentists males. But even after allowing for those factors, studies have generally found that, on average, women earn roughly 10 percent less than men even in comparable jobs, with equal levels of education, training, and experience.

Analysis of wage discrimination against black Americans leads to similar conclusions. Specifically, after controlling for differences in age, education, hours worked, experience, occupation, and region of the country, wages for black men are roughly 10 percent lower than for white men, though occupational segregation appears to be less common by race than by gender. Issues other than wage discrimination are also important to note for black workers. In particular, unemployment rates for black workers are about twice as high as they are for white workers. Partly because of that, a much lower percentage of the U.S. black population is employed than the white population.

Hispanic workers generally receive wages about 5 percent lower than white workers, after adjusting for differences in education, training, experience, and other characteristics that affect workers’ productivity. Some studies suggest that differences in the ability to speak English are particularly important in understanding wage differences for Hispanic workers.

The differences between the earnings of white males and earnings of females and minorities slowly decreased in the closing decades of the 20th century. Some laws and regulations prohibiting discrimination seem to have helped in this process. A large part of those gains occurred shortly after the adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which among other things, outlawed discrimination by employers and unions. Many economists worry that the discrimination that remains may be more difficult to identify and eliminate through legislation.

Discrimination in competitive labor markets is economically inefficient as well as unfair. When workers are not paid based on the value of what they add to employers’ production and profit levels, society loses opportunities to use labor resources in their most valuable ways. As a result, fewer goods and services are produced. If employers discriminate against certain groups of workers, they will pay for that behavior in competitive markets by earning lower profits. Similarly, if workers refuse to work with (or for) coworkers of a different gender, race, or ethnic background, they will have to accept lower wages in competitive markets because their discrimination makes it more costly for employers to run their businesses. And if customers refuse to be served by workers of a certain gender, race, or ethnicity in certain kinds of jobs, they will have to pay higher prices in competitive markets because their discrimination raises the costs of providing these goods and services.

Those who are discriminated against receive lower wages and often experience other forms of economic hardship, such as more frequent and longer periods of unemployment. Beyond that, the lower wage rates and restricted career opportunities they face will naturally affect their decisions about how much education and training to acquire and what kinds of careers to pursue. For that reason, some of the costs of discrimination are paid over very long periods of time, sometimes for a worker’s entire life.

It is clear that there is still discrimination in the U.S. economy. What is not always so clear is how much that discrimination costs the economy as a whole, and that it costs not only those who are discriminated against, but also those who practice discrimination.

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